Resisting the Co-opting of MLK’s Legacy and Remembering Him as a Theologian
Martin Luther King Jr. is arguably the most celebrated non-elected citizen in the history of the United States of America.
This is evidenced by the fact that Dr. King is the only American to have a federal holiday named in their honor without having served a day in public office.
Yet, despite this high honor and the recognition that Dr. King routinely receives, there continues to be a general public ignorance about many important aspects of his life.
For example, though most Americans celebrate King, the majority have no clue about the intellectual and theological forces that helped to shape MLK into an American civic hero.
For the average American, their knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King begins with the fact that he was a civil rights activist who delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech at a march in Washington and it ends with him being assassinated in Memphis five years later.
Though these facts are certainly important to the life of Dr. King, they do not tell the story of the theological brilliance that undergirded King’s faith and justice movement.
As a result, many Americans celebrate the life of a man that in reality, they know very little about.
This presents a great danger to the legacy of Dr. King because it allows for people to co-opt his message and de-radicalize his theological voice.
Presently, our land is filled with faith leaders and preachers who fraudulently use the name and words of MLK to advance their agendas (political or otherwise) when in reality their theologies are far from what King stood for and cared about.
For this cause it is more important than ever that we stop speaking of MLK as simply a civil rights leader without also giving adequate attention to King as a theologian and thinker.
After all, he did have an earned Phd in Systematic Theology that rarely gets mentioned when his story is told.
To this end, I have produced my list of the top 3 books written on the theology and thought of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Be clear, this list is neither exhaustive nor definitive.
It’s simply MY list of favorites. Nothing more and nothing less.
Hopefully you will find it helpful.
I recommend this work first because it provides a great basis for the familial and adolescent development of King.
It contains a detailed account of his family’s history in Atlanta and their historical connection to the Ebenezer Baptist church.
But the most important feature of this resource is that it chronicles the original letters and papers of young Martin King from his days at Morehouse College to his days at Crozer Theological Seminary.
I consider this indispensable resource for anyone interested in understanding King as a thinker and minister.
This book is a part of the armchair theologian series which is a collection of texts that feature the thought of a famous theologian as understood by a contemporary religious scholar.
This book that features the thought of MLK is written by seminary professor Rufus Burrow whose work specializes in theological social ethics.
The great benefit of this book is its accessibility and reader-friendly composition (it even has pictures).
In fact, I imagine most folks could read this entire book fairly quickly and at the conclusion have a general understanding of the substratum of King’s theology and thought.
This was the first book I read that took seriously the fact that King was an actual theologian.
In this unique book, Dr. Noel Erskine (a former professor of mine) compares and contrasts the theology of MLK to the theologies of Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, James Cone, and a few womanist theologians.
For the student of theology this book will be a treat.
For others, this book will be an important window into the mind of Dr. King as a religious thinker and scholar.
However, I would recommend that readers who are not students of theology read King For Armchair Theologians before they read Erskine’s text so that might gain a better understanding of the concepts and language.
To learn more about Dr. King and his legacy, click here or visit The King Center (right here in Atlanta) in person.
-Billy Michael Honor
Billy Michael Honor is a public scholar, faith leader, and civic organizer whose progressive and compelling insights have made him a sought after preacher, lecturer, and social commentator.
Billy is currently the Director of faith organizing for the New Georgia Project, which is a respected civic engagement organization founded by noted politician Stacey Abrams. In this position Billy mobilizes faith communities across the state of Georgia around a progressive faith-based political agenda. Since taking on this position Billy’s innovative campaigns and activism have been celebrated and written about by many media outlets and recognized for being one of the promising contemporary movements of public faith witness.
In addition to being a Faith Organizer Billy is also the Pastor of Pulse Church in downtown Atlanta. Pulse began in fall 2015 and is already widely known for its progressive faith witness and social justice advocacy. Prior to organizing Pulse, Billy was the Pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in College Park, GA, which became the fastest growing predominantly African American Presbyterian congregation in the United States.
Billy is also the founder and facilitator of “Truth on the Loose” which is an independent public scholarship brand that provides high quality thought leadership content on faith and culture.
Since starting Truth on the Loose Billy has become an emerging progressive social voice, regularly speaking at churches, conferences, colleges and community events and being a media commentator on issues related to contemporary faith and culture. Since 2008 he has facilitated a respected blog that maintains a diverse and growing readership and his sermons and writings have been featured in Huffington Post, the Root.com, Presbyterians Today magazine, Yahoo Voices, Odyssey Network and Day1 Media Ministry.
Billy holds a bachelors of arts in Biblical Education with honors from Beulah Heights Christian University in Atlanta, Georgia, a Master of Divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith Seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta (where he graduated at top of his seminary class), and has completed an advanced studies Master of Theology degree with honors from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where his research focused on the intersection of theology, race and cultural criticism.
Billy has also served on the board of trustees of several institutions including Columbia Theological Seminary, Johnson C. Smith Seminary and the Interdenominational Theological Center. He has also been an adjunct professor of religious studies and guest lecturer at various theological institutions throughout the United States and is currently working on completing his first book project scheduled to be released next year.
He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Kaldeen who is an HR professional and special events consultant.